Long-term agronomic performance of organic and conventional field crops in the mid-atlantic region

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Despite increasing interest in organic grain crop production, there is inadequate information regarding the performance of organically-produced grain crops in the United States, especially in Coastal Plain soils of the mid-Atlantic region. We report on corn (Zea mays L.), soybean [Glycine max (L.) Merr.], and wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) yields at the USDA-ARS Beltsville Farming Systems Project (FSP), a long-term cropping systems trial established in Maryland in 1996 to evaluate the sustainability of organic and conventional grain crop production. The five FSP cropping systems include a conventional no-till corn–soybean–wheat/soybean rotation (NT), a conventional chisel-till corn–soybean–wheat/soybean rotation (CT), a 2-yr organic corn–soybean rotation (Org2), a 3-yr organic corn–soybean–wheat rotation (Org3), and a 4- to 6-yr organic corn–soybean–wheat–hay rotation (Org4+). Average corn grain yield during 9 yr was similar in NT and CT (7.88 and 8.03 Mg ha–1, respectively) but yields in Org2, Org3, and Org4+ were, respectively, 41, 31, and 24% less than in CT. Low N availability explained, on average, 73% of yield losses in organic systems relative to CT while weed competition and plant population explained, on average, 23 and 4%, respectively, of these yield losses. The positive relationship between crop rotation length and corn yield among organic systems was related to increasing N availability and decreasing weed abundance with increasing rotation length. Soybean yield averaged 19% lower in the three organic systems (2.88 Mg ha–1) than in the conventional systems (3.57 Mg ha–1) and weed competition alone accounted for this difference. There were no consistent differences in wheat yield among cropping systems. Crop rotation length and complexity had little impact on soybean and wheat yields among organic systems. Results indicate that supplying adequate N for corn and controlling weeds in both corn and soybean are the biggest challenges to achieving equivalent yields between organic and conventional cropping systems

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